U.S. Coasts Prepare for Rising Seas

Experts Urge Coastal Regions to Plan for Likely Effects

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Steve Goldbeck is chief deputy director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Laura Tam is sustainable development policy director for SPUR, formerly known as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Development Association.

Heather McElroy is a natural resource specialist with the Cape Cod Commission in Barnstable, Mass.

Dave McKeon is planning director for Ocean County, N.J., based at Toms River.

Jim Murley is executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, based in Hollywood, Fla.

Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 2:14 pm | Updated: 6:45 pm, Wed Mar 19, 2014.

Sea level is a “slow-moving emergency,” according to scientist Steve Goldbeck.

As chief deputy director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), one of the first U.S. coastal community agencies to establish a master plan to deal with sea level rise, Goldbeck has first-hand experience helping coastal communities deal with the effects of climate change.

And around the country, from Connecticut to Florida to California, coastal communities are weighing the reality of sea level rise into their long-term planning.

“Science is pretty clear. Sea level is rising and it has risen significantly in the last 100 years. The most robust numbers are from the U.S. National Research Council (suggesting sea level rise over the 21st century of between 22 and 79 inches). But it is difficult to predict,” Goldbeck said. “We don’t know, for example, how much greenhouse gases will be emitted in the next several decades.”

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea level worldwide is currently rising by about 0.118 inches per year, which is “a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years …”

The California’s Climate Action Team projections indicate a rise of 10 to 17 inches by 2050 and between 31 and 69 inches by 2100, considered the best available sea level projections for the West Coast. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Working Group I Fifth Assessment Report (WGI AR5), which provides a comprehensive assessment of the physical science basis of climate change, projects a 17- to 32-inch sea level rise by 2100, depending largely on how much greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere during the remainder of the century.

Worldwide effects

IPCC’s report, compiled with 54,677 comments by 1,089 expert reviewers from 55 counties and 38 governments, noted that “human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming and understanding of the climate system.”

There have been numerous other predictions, including one study cited by Ocean.NationalGeographic.com that said to expect oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp many of the cities along the East Coast.

“Really, it’s more important that people start planning immediately for a rise in sea level. BCDC, which has served some 100 cities in nine California counties for more than 20 years, is trying to be resilient to a range of sea level rises. We have a mandate to plan for the Bay and its shoreline as a regional state agency,” Goldbeck said. “People need to make sea level rise part of the planning for a number of threats and issues. For example, we know we are going to have a major earthquake here again. We already face the potential for flooding and extreme storms. We must have a regional strategy for the bay in planning at all levels.”

Much of the San Francisco Bay’s shoreline land, reclaimed from the bay in the 1800s, is already very low lying and vulnerable to flooding that could affect more than 250,000 residents and cost $60 billion alone to replace, Goldbeck added.

“This includes a lot of major companies like Google in the Silicon Valley that are close to the shoreline,” he said. “This is the future we are trying to prevent.”

Creating a strategy

Another important Bay Area agency that works closely with the BCDC is SPUR, formerly known as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Development Association. Founded in 1910 after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, SPUR is a 4,000-member, non-profit research, education and advocacy organization focused on issues of planning and governance, including renewable energy, housing and sea level rise, among other issues.

Laura Tam, SPUR’s Sustainable Development Policy director, echoed Goldbeck’s recommendation that U.S. coastal communities incorporate sea level rise strategies in all future planning.

“An important role for SPUR is helping to jumpstart a conversation about sea level rise. People have to think about a problem we are going to face going forward,” she said. “It’s not going to get better. We recognized the need for regional, local and scenario planning and we were part of the first wave of consciousness when we began writing about sea level rise in 2009.

“Our Climate Change report issued in 2011 was the first of its kind for the bay,” Tam added. “California is at the forefront on this issue. We have put together a statewide climate adaptation strategy to mitigate our impact and we continue to fund a lot of studies that examine our vulnerability to issues like sea level rise. That includes risk assessments for transportation, energy, habitat protection, building codes and other existing nature and infrastructure. We know that we have to do things and that we have a lot of opportunities.”

Risk assessments and building development

For those who haven’t begun seriously addressing sea level rise, Tam suggested that the best place to start is a comprehensive risk assessment.

“Understand what projections are most applicable, what are you going to face and where,” she said. “Coastline makeup and tectonic movements will affect any ocean rise. Create coastal inundation maps that show what land would be covered by a rise.”

Building codes also have to be amended to account for sea level rise, Tam said. Structures need to be properly designed and funded so that future changes can easily be made, for example, raising the height of sea walls or levees. Any design and financial strategy needs to offer protection well into the next century.

Through Tam and its other professionals, SPUR provides policy options to local governments in the Bay area and advocates where it is appropriate. It also acts as a clearinghouse for information.

On the East Coast, communities such as Cape Cod, the New Jersey shore and South Florida also are planning for sea level rise in the long-term. One example is a 600-mile stretch from Cape Hatteras to Boston nicknamed the “northeast hotspot,” which experienced an increase in the rate of rise three to four times higher than the global average between 1950-1979 and 1980-2009.

Heather McElroy, a natural resource specialist with the Cape Cod Commission in Barnstable, Mass., said the commission was created in 1990 with regulatory authority over certain development, especially to increase the protection of natural resources on Cape Cod.

The commission reviews larger commercial and industrial projects, subdivisions greater than 30 acres and all state environmental permitting. A regional policy plan was updated to include the new FEMA flood plain regulations, especially in light of the rise in sea level.

The town of Chatham, which is at the Cape’s elbow, adopted a flood plain bylaw that prevents any residential development in Zone A, which is usually inundated, McElroy said. The law covers permitted uses, special permit uses and prohibited uses, she said. A property owner challenged that law, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld it, ruling in 2005 that the bylaw was “based on reasonable public interest and did not render the lot economically worthless. Therefore, no compensation was due.”

“This was an important victory in efforts to defend the Cape against sea level rise and other coastal issues,” McElroy said.

Cape Cod also continues to nourish beaches with more sand in strategic places, but replenishing beach sand is not always an easy option.

“On the Cape Cod Canal at Sandwich, a jetty system robs sand from the beaches, which threatens a group of private homes,” she said. “The owners spent about $200,000 last year to dump sand on the beach. But that’s just a band aid.”

Considering undevelopment

As a regional planning agency, McElroy said the commission seeks to make Cape Cod’s coastline more resilient in many ways.

“We have applied for grants to underwrite remediation, planted grass, removed rip rap jetties and expanded salt marshes,” she said. “We are looking for ways to undevelop the coastline where we can.”

When it comes to sea level rise, shore towns like Long Beach, Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant have to balance current problems with future ones, said Dave McKeon, planning director for Ocean County, N.J., based at Toms River.

“While we are looking 50 years down the road, we could get hit by a Category 4 storm like Sandy,” he said. “What is the worst? That’s the challenge.”

Ocean County relies on the USGS for tide heights and other information and it’s a very reliable network, McKeon said.

While it has no formal or legal requirements prohibiting building, McKeon said Jersey beach communities are very dense with development in comparison to Cape Cod.

“We don’t have forced buyouts, but we are evaluating them,” he said. “We do have our Blue Acres Program, which has funds available to buy properties that have been flooded numerous times with repetitive losses. Some areas are just too vulnerable and need to be undeveloped.”

Since its creation in 1998, the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund, paid for by a 1.2-cent voter-approved dedicated tax, has preserved more than 11,800 acres of open space.

Dunes, bulkheads, seawalls

Other options to deal with rising sea levels include dunes, bulkheads and seawalls. The county recently distributed more than 300,000 dune grass plants and 100,750 feet of fencing to towns and organizations to help fortify dunes along the county’s coast. The county initiated the program during the early 1990s following severe storms in the fall and early winter months that resulted in the weakening of dunes along its 44 miles of coastline.

Ocean County is finalizing a Multi-Jurisdictional All Hazards Mitigation Plan, a blueprint for reducing property damage and saving lives from the effects of future natural and human-made disasters. The plan incorporates the new FEMA flood plain directives, steps taken before, during and after Sandy, and looks at other hazards that can potentially affect Ocean County, such as forest fires and winter storms, McKeon said.

“The plan addresses sea level rise,” he said. “There is an awareness here and people are getting the wake-up call. On the bay, we have seen some trees die because the saltwater is encroaching on them. I also know that the Delaware Bay is rising and that about 50 homes were abandoned and bought from the property owners because nothing could be done to save them from the rising water.”

South Florida also is being proactive about the rising ocean, but faces a unique problem according to Jim Murley, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, based in Hollywood, Fla.

Since the state rests on a very porous lime rock substrate formed over several thousand years by coral reefs, it soaks up water like a sponge, he said.

“The water table is very close to the surface and very fresh,” he said. “Since saltwater is heavier, and when the oceans rise, it will push up the water table.”

South Florida canals

A series of intricate freshwater canals drain the southern part of the state, but during storms or rising sea levels, the saltwater moves up into the canals. Currently, numerous control gates with force pumps prevent the saltwater from moving too far up the canals, especially during high tide. These might not offer the same protection as the sea level rises, Murley said.

South Florida also has seen remarkable development, including Miami Beach – which is built on sand and marsh. But it is a small footprint to work in jammed between the ocean and the Everglades.

“There’s not much potential for relocation,” Murley said. “How costly would it be to do that? And people are here because they want to see the water and they have to keep building higher buildings to do that.”

The regional planning council for Palm Beach, Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, is made up of people from agencies, government and universities, Murley said.

“We all work together to communicate and share the latest information when it comes to issues like sea level rise,” he said. “While we realize it will be an expense, we assume that everything is possible. We are all committed to an ongoing process using whatever national and international resources are at our disposal.”

Another key for the council is its vital signs network monitoring changes in nature.

“For example, are animals moving to new habitats? If the mangroves that need saltwater move farther inland, saltwater is moving farther into fresh water,” Murley said.

During the past 100 years, the sea has risen about 9 to 11 inches, proof that sea level rise occurs gradually, Murley said.

“We assume that we can put things into place that will mitigate that rise,” he said. “Right now, it’s hard to sit here in our situation and say here’s what we are going to do. We know we need no-regret strategies — things that will help now and later.”

“Maybe 70 years down the road, the building codes that we enforce today could pay off to combat rising sea level,” McKeon said. “We don’t know, but we can’t lose by taking care of the Earth.”

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  • Tapani Talo posted at 7:59 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    Tapani Talo Posts: 2

    Considering detailed articles from leading scientists, these numbers are roughly 10% of the likely. As an architect, I find that we are hopelessly keeping our heads in the sand like good rabbits.

  • Tapani Talo posted at 7:59 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    Tapani Talo Posts: 2

    Considering detailed articles from leading scientists, these numbers are roughly 10% of the likely. As an architect, I find that we are hopelessly keeping our heads in the sand like good rabbits.


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